greyhound bus

I had decided to join a mission team to the Navajo Reservation one summer. I was in my early twenties and I had assumed I could handle anything that life could dish out. I might have had that attitude partly from my experiences in childhood, and several very serious accidents that had threatened my life as well as finding that I had ‘inherited’ physical problems that would prove to plague me all of my life to the present.

The missionary team I had joined was headed up by a portly (very well fed) evangelist who was of mixed Native-American and Caucasian descent who had an affinity for the people living on the reservation that was obvious to even my inexperienced eye.

We set out on a route through the reservations from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in New Mexico until we finally arrived in a remote corner of the Navajo Reservation in Northeastern Arizona. It was there that I was introduced to other team members recruited from across the US that had been invited by our group leader, Lee. Lee had spoken to me privately that many of the would-be missionaries apply for the chance to work with missions efforts on the Reservations but are usually gone after the first week due to the privation and sacrifice of the comforts of home on the altar of necessity. So it was that the first exit off the paved road on a dirt trail that wound over 60 miles into the virtual wilderness of desert in Northeastern Arizona culled out a considerable number of people along for the ride. One elderly lady stayed for some time and more than pulled her weight and was especially comforting to the young single women who had decided to stick out the mission effort. Those young women stayed in spite of the available running water being about 60 miles away near that highway we had left when we had entered that dirt track. Through that elderly lady, I too was encouraged, for she reminded me of my own mother and her resourcefulness almost matched my own mother’s!

It was on that trail through those Reservation stops from Wyoming to Arizona that I was first introduced to a totally unfamiliar way of life and different kinds of religions. For each tribe had their own beliefs and religion. I also would eventually be introduced to my next care giving job. The elderly lady had a name, of course, but all of us younger missionaries called her the Iron Lady. I have no idea anymore if we named her after the famous Maggie Thatcher of England, that astonishingly well-known Prime Minister of England! Like Thatcher she was so strong and self-assured in everything she did. Eventually, she had to return to her home to take care of some situation there, but before she left she invited me to come to her home church and preach for the congregation she was part of. The invitation was pending the assent of the church leadership of course.

It was over a year before I began to do an evangelistic tour across the nation and since I was passing near the town where our ‘Iron Lady’ lived I contacted the church pastor and asked permission to stop by and preach at least one service and possibly expand to a weeklong revival crusade if the church would have me. Little did I know that I would be drawn into a care giving situation that would develop into so much more and leave me much more experienced in care giving while being deeply encouraged on the one hand and deeply wounded on the other.

Those were the days that traveling Trailways and Greyhound buses were my main mode of travel. I could sit back and let them do the driving and I could read and study only having to watch for bus changes and routes. I arrived in the town that was closest on the Greyhound route and called the church to let them know I needed the promised ride back to their church. I waited around until my ride arrived and there was the Iron Lady herself and with her a young man and woman that were in their 20’s whom I learned were two of her children. We spent the 45 minute trip to the church and town catching up on what had happened in the last year for each of us and it seemed like no time that we had arrived back at their church. We stopped at the church so I could meet the pastor and after I had made the obligatory greetings and meetings to the pastor and deacons I was told I would stay in a spare bedroom belonging to one of the Iron Lady’s sons. Since she was 61 years old at the time her son proved to be about 40 and he had a daughter.

Well! It was not love at first sight, but perhaps there was some lust involved! I was not prepared for a meeting with someone who was so beautiful and at the same time so unpretentious, as if she were not even aware of how she looked and how she could affect the guys around her. I was usually rather tongue tied and stumbled terribly when in her presence much to the amusement of her father. He evidently did not think I was a threat to his daughter as we were asked to pitch in and help together to do the chores on the farm he worked outside that little Missouri town. I learned she was a second-year college student and that she was home for the summer from school and scheduled to go back in the fall. I eventually found a way to control my vocal cords and managed to converse with her without stammering and stuttering too much! We eventually decided we liked each other and we promised to write and stay in touch as we both went on with our lives.

I preached the first six nights of the revival and was scheduled to ‘close’ out the week with the final sermon on Sunday night. It was a hot muggy evening with the humidity so high that I felt like I had just stepped out of a sauna! I soon found as I was sitting on that platform in that small wood frame and sided church that I needed to shed my sports jacket. When I took my jacket off, it seemed to be the cue or unspoken permission that everyone on the platform could also do the same. I felt rather unqualified to be a young twenty-something like me that could influence a church music team in front of a rather stoic reserved leadership, but it was something I got used to over the coming years. The music was wonderful, the pastor’s words were strong and encouraging as only a farmer who relied on faith to farm could do, the offering was taken, and it was time to preach.

I preached a sermon that was one of my favorite themes titled when the ‘Devil hands you a stick of dynamite’. I wanted to leave this wonderful closely knit congregation with a last message of encouragement. I had been treated with the utmost respect and care. I was going to miss these people in this little rural town with its old-fashioned buildings and customs! So I preached my best effort. I shared how sometimes the currently wildly popular prosperity gospel was not always true to life. I reminded the congregation that the heroes of the Bible had serious and often time’s life-threatening trials and tribulations and their great triumph was that their faith did not fail. They hung in and stood in the face of life’s battles. I finished the message and rather exhausted stood waiting for the line of people coming forward to hear a word of encouragement or prayer from the evangelist. This was another custom of the charismatic church services I did not particularly enjoy or relish. When I had traveled with Lee he would cynically refer to this time as ‘the time that we slap a sweaty hand on the empty heads and bless them’. That was a side of Lee I did not like to think about! It would always come to mind ever after whenever I stood receiving a ‘prayer line’. But I stood and listened as each person who came forward shared their prayer requests quietly and sometimes desperately voicing things no one else in their church or even their families had ever heard about.

Bringing up the end of the line was Ellie, that wonderful new friend I had spent the last week working with! We had fed the livestock, drove tractor and baled hay, cut, pulled, and gathered weeds out of the garden together and generally kept close. This was so I could sneak another peek at some surprisingly symmetrical curves crowned with an amazing river of red hair that seemed to shine like deep red copper and could make me quite lose my entire train of thought. Sometimes even the caboose disappeared on that train of thought!

Ellie stood in front of me trembling and starting to cry. As she started to talk, she began to sob. Her shoulders were heaving and shaking while suddenly her father’s eyes were boring holes into me as I listened. She had been date raped by a football player from the college where she attended. She had been to her doctor when she noticed some problems starting to show in her health. She was diagnosed as HIV positive. She was already losing ground and some things would soon be impossible to hide from her family. I stepped back in shock. My surprise and shock must have shown on my face. So much so that her father half stood up from his seat but Ellie’s mother put out a hand to hold him. My mind briefly marveled at how the gentle touch of a woman could hold a man who weighed at least 200 pounds and was almost all iron and muscle. My thoughts quickly turned back to Ellie. I felt helpless.

I looked up and with my eyes I sought out the face of the Iron Lady. When I caught her gaze I put all my feelings in the look I gave her. She stood up and came forward to stand about 10 feet away from Ellie. She hummed an old hymn under her breath which let Ellie know she was there for her. I leaned over and told Ellie I was going to pray for her. It seemed so completely inadequate at the time, but I was to learn over the last many years since then that it was the only viable solution. Ellie sat down in a front row seat, still crying.

I walked over to the Iron Lady and very quietly whispered to her what had been shared by her granddaughter. I watched the Iron drain out of her face. Her shoulders sagged. She told me she would like me to cancel my plans to leave the next morning that she wanted me to stay and talk to Ellie’s parents. She stood for a long time with her head bowed and finally leaned forward to whisper, “What a most unfortunate situation….” She finally turned and walked back to Ellie’s parents and asked them to allow me to stay at her house that night. She told them we had a discussion to take care of the next day.

I sat and talked to my friend into the night. She had regained her old strength somewhat and shared with me that her son respected me very much and had the moment I had come to the church. I found that hard to understand! I did not feel that special or unique! But she explained that I had looked directly in the eyes of the pastor and deacons and worked as hard as any in his family in spite of wearing ‘church clothes’ and I had carried my weight. So, she explained that it was through his influence that the small congregation had raised over 1,400.00 in that week long revival crusade for my support on my trips to my future engagements. I didn’t know that for myself  that evening, but sure enough, Ellie’s father handed me a check the next day for 1,400.00 from the church treasury. He gave it to me with the comment that I had preached it real and I had not been like those stuffed suits on TV. Perhaps he is the reason I have always tried to preach it real from that time on. I have avoided the gimmicks and the false hopes and promises that became popular among evangelists for awhile and tried to share just the messages that I could lift straight out of the Word. Real was what he called it. I hope that is my epitaph!

The ‘Iron Lady’, Ellie’s parents and I all sat around the older woman’s table the next morning. Ellie was still sleeping. Her mother said she had cried herself to sleep. Her parents still did not know what she had shared with me. When her father heard what the problem was he sat like he had turned to stone. Ellie’s mother sat as though the whole world’s weight fell on her and crushed her. The sparkle went out of her eyes. With that sparkle she had looked young and vibrant, now she looked like a worn hard working and defeated farmer’s wife who had just had her every hope ripped from her.

Ellie’s father started to mutter under his breath, and his wife touched his arm again at which point he subsided. I again marveled at that woman’s power over her husband that her touch could instantly calm him and cause him to sit calmly. I had a glimpse of a love bond that was other worldly and it was amazing to me! We talked for a long while, but it was obvious it was an issue beyond our ability to handle by ourselves. The Iron Lady had again completely regained her old appearance and she finally brought our discussion to a close with a request that we pray together. Ellie’s father prayed for all of us and part of his prayer was that he asked God to keep him from going to his old ways and hunting the rapist down to ‘deal with him’. That had a hint of danger in it for the as yet unnamed football player. I took note of that and vowed not to anger this big strong farmer who was obviously also very capable of carrying out whatever he wanted to do.

I finally was asked my input by Ellie’s father and I explained that first and foremost I would normally not share what was shared with me in confidence in a prayer line. To breach a trust as an evangelist or a pastor would violate the very basic rules of ministry! But I felt that the family needed to know so that they could properly respond to Ellie’s needs. They assured me they were very grateful for my wisdom. I did not feel so wise, I felt completely out of my area of expertise!

I prepared to leave, all the while hoping that Ellie would make an appearance. But her mother said she was too embarrassed to face us. Her dad offered to drive me to the neighboring town where I could catch my bus and as he did he also offered to help me cash the check from the church that he handed to me. I was surprised and overwhelmed by the size of that check! It was very seldom that a church the size of that church would raise such an amount!

As we drove to the Greyhound station, I sat in stunned silence as Ellie’s father told me that she had told him she had fallen in love with me. I expressed my doubts to that information given the short time I had been there in that community and I wondered if there was anything to a saying among evangelists that we were considered the rock stars of the church communities. But in spite of his skepticism as well, she had insisted that he accept me. I was now very confused as to what I was to do with this new information and at the same time I was more than a little excited only to quickly realize in spite of this news that she would not have a very long life. So began a tug-of-war in my heart. My feelings must have shown on my face because her father in a surprisingly gentle voice told me he understood how I felt. He told me how he and his wife had met and how she had tamed him from being the town rebel to church deacon simply by being her sweet gentle self. She had always been able to calm him with just a look or a touch and he was now in his 21st year of marriage and it still mystified him as to how she could do that. I agreed that his marriage was something that I marveled at as well.

At the bus station, he asked me to stop back in on my way through at any time. He asked me to consider his family my family and then he asked me what I felt about all the things that had happened. I told him I needed to have some time to think. I explained that I had lost a fiancée to a car accident just before I had moved to Colorado from the Midwest. I did not know if I could handle this situation without some time to think and pray. He suddenly rested his head on the steering wheel and began to cry. I left him there in the parking lot sitting in his pickup, sobbing and hugging the steering wheel. I got out to board the bus that had just pulled into the station.

As I worked my way east, first into Ohio and down through Kentucky and then back up to Baltimore. I sometimes only stayed at one church for three nights before moving on to the next engagement, other times for only one night, and occasionally I would preach a week long crusade. I thought about Ellie as I traveled and often would daydream of what life would be like to be with her on a beautiful little farm in Missouri. But I was convinced it was just fantasy and would never be. I really did not have the faith that God would ever do something like that for me. I gradually worked south into Florida and finally headed back west after nearly two months on the road. Coming to my last church engagement in Mississippi, I decided to head north and visit my adopted family.

I was staying overnight in a motel after preaching that revival meeting and before going to bed I placed a call to Ellie’s folks. Her Dad answered the phone. As soon as he heard my voice he told me it was good to hear from me and that I had been missed. I was overwhelmed that he was calling me son. I found that a new experience and somehow very comforting. It was good to be part of family somewhere! I looked forward to being able to see the people from that little church and the Iron Lady as well. I found myself unable to study or read on that bus ride north to that little town where Ellie was waiting. I didn’t know that she had any idea that I was coming. Her father had decided to surprise the whole family with my arrival. I arrived at the final stop and there he was waiting in his pickup truck. As I stepped off the bus, I was rushed and given a bear hug that lifted me off the ground!

We headed back to the farm. As he drove he explained that since the family had been informed they were able to help Ellie start medical treatment and although it would not save her, she would possibly have a longer life. The drive to the farm was soon over and we pulled into the farm yard and parked. Ellie was out in a stock pen feeding some cattle, her brother was out in a corn field cultivating the crop while her mother was bending over the rows of vegetables in the garden and pulling some for the evening meal. When I had been there nearly two months earlier, it had been hot but now it was sweltering. It was one of those late August summer days that would melt butter and fry eggs on the sidewalks! I was glad to be where I could get out of my clothes and change into something lighter! We went into the kitchen and sat at the table. Ellie’s mother came in and stopped in a momentary confusion which suddenly was replaced by a half laugh half scream and she rushed me. I never could get used to this Missouri family that wore their hearts so close to the surface! They just could not contain or hide their real feelings! It somehow made me feel right at home.

Ellie’s brother was next and then she came in right behind him. As she came through the door from the screen porch they all yelled “Surprise!” She stopped in shock. And then she sat down in the nearest chair and began to cry. I can never understand women! They cry when they are happy and they smile at a guy when they are thinking of how to kick his butt for some infraction he committed! I finally understood through her sobs that she was happy to see me. Her brother was making faces at her as only brothers can do! Rolling his eyes at her and shaking his head in mock disgust.

I spent a very happy week there on the farm. It was a lot of hard labor, as there was hay to bale and get in the barn, and weeds were growing as only weeds can grow, while fences waited for mending and the milk parlor needed some electrical work. When I admitted that I knew how to do electrical work and assured my hosts I would not burn the barn down, I was drafted or forced enlisted into rewiring the barn. Oh, what fun! When I was asked if I needed help Ellie volunteered before her father could finish the sentence! We were well into the second week of my visit and one afternoon Ellie’s brother walked into the barn and announced he was going swimming and asked us if we wished to go along. Before I could even get an answer off, Ellie had dropped the roll of wire she was holding and was climbing down the ladder out of the hay loft yelling to wait for us as she needed to get her suit. Her brother was waiting at the big wood double doors and tossed a pair of swimming trunks to me. He laughed. “Wouldn’t want you running around with my sis in your birthday suit!” I was introduced to another fun family tradition, swimming to wash off the dust and chaff from working on a farm! I think the feeling of family was growing so much stronger than any cable to keep me there! The whole family loved each other, and supported each other. They all obviously were welcoming me into the family with open arms.

As for me? I was still struggling with self-esteem issues. I had grown up listening to my father criticize everything I did and often delivering the ultimate condemnation that he could muster. That was the statement “You are just like your G–D— mother! Hard-headed, and stubborn, and refusing to do things right!” That was only one of many condemnations hurled at me if I was not doing what my father wanted and to his most exacting demanding standards. Contrast that to a family that seemed to never voice a condemnation toward one another and often went out of their way to make me feel at home!

The guest bedroom began to be referred to as my room which made me feel even more like family rather than guest. There were other small incidents that drew me into the family. One afternoon, Ellie’s father realized I had trouble with my right hand. He asked what was wrong that I couldn’t do certain tasks with that hand and I spent about an hour and half at his urging talking about growing up in an extremely verbally abusive home with a continual threat of physical abuse sprinkled in. I admitted that staying with his family seemed so strange and foreign to me. That it was an amazing wonderful experience that I would always remember. He sat quietly with tears in his eyes. When I had finished talking, we sat together in a peaceful quiet time. Finally, he spoke.

“I grew up the same way son!” He was talking very matter of fact and his tone was soft, gentle, and not boisterous as he usually could be. “You can beat this thing!” he said. “I did, but the wounds take time to heal. Don’t expect them to ever leave your memory. They just don’t hurt any more after a while. It takes time to learn how to handle the memories and not let them make who you are. Try to understand that our dads grew up in a different time, it will help you to forgive him.”

I didn’t answer. He moved over and sat beside me on the plank I was seated on.

“I would have enjoyed helping you get started with Ellie! She is really attached to you! I don’t understand it myself. She is a lot like her mother and we were married after only two weeks of dating. Never thought when I saw her that first time that she would snare me for life in just two weeks and that I would enjoy it so much and want it to last forever!”

I finally told him that I was having a hard time knowing whether I was returning the same care and love for Ellie or if I was in love with her curves. I couldn’t believe that I had just confessed to Ellie’s father that I was very attracted to her appearance! Part of me was holding back, and screaming in my mind, “NO, NO, NO!” While another part of me wanted so much to be able to talk to someone who could be a father figure to me. And this man was as good of a father as I could ever hope to find!

There were other days of work in the sweltering August heat and another swim. That time Ellie’s brother left early leaving Ellie and I alone. Once she knew he was gone, she dove back in and came back up treading water out in the middle of the farm pond we were swimming in. When she came close to me I realized she had shed her bathing suit! There followed a serious discussion about what was right and what was allowed. This ended finally in her leaving the water and toweling off to walk back to the house alone leaving me to follow after I had dried myself and dressed. When I got back to the house Ellie’s family looked at me with thoughtful expressions and sidelong glances. Ellie was in her bedroom and did not come to the supper table. The conversation went as normal as usual on the surface but I felt an undercurrent of something different and it was uncomfortable to me. I went to my room and felt uneasy. There came a knock on the door and when I opened it, Ellie’s mother was standing there. There was no look of reproach, quite the contrary she had a certain warm welcoming look that was something I had not seen her direct toward me much during the time I had been there. The look made me feel special and cherished. I had assumed her strained look in the last weeks was due to her concern for her daughter.

After asking if we could talk and getting my assent, she came in and sat in the armchair while I sat on the bed. She explained that she had talked to Ellie alone and she was able to learn what had transpired at the pond. She had realized that Ellie thought that I had rejected her. I felt very uncomfortable talking to Ellie’s mother about this subject but I did manage to explain that I had felt compelled to obey my mother’s teachings even though I had not seen my mother in several years. She put me at ease and explained that she had already told her husband and he suggested we find a preacher so that we could be together for as long as we could before Ellie’s time to die. I was rather taken aback by the directness that this family addressed issues with.

I explained that I would have to settle my situation in my home base in Colorado and I needed some time to think and sort things out. She asked me if I wasn’t attracted to Ellie physically. And she asked me if I had any physical defect that would prevent me from being ‘married’. I again found myself in the most awkward of conversations. Again I was talking to a woman I did not know well yet, and discussing very personal feelings and issues about my future relationship with her daughter.

(I have often wondered what I should have done over the years. I often went over this whole period of time in my quiet times when looking back at my past. That situation has influenced and shaped every relationship I have had with women ever since. I have been since that time very open and outspoken about my feelings and my issues in a relationship. That family taught me it was better to put our feelings out in the open to be addressed in compassion and love rather than stuffing resentments and hurts and wrongs which then could break a family up later and make it nearly impossible to reconcile. I find that characteristic very rare in people I have met since that time!)

Ellie’s mother then asked me if I would want to marry Ellie. She explained that it would be difficult for me because Ellie would die eventually, most likely long before I died. This was back when the cure for AIDS was a distant dream and nowhere near reality yet. I told her I had no cash flow to handle a wedding as I was an itinerant preacher, not sure of any stable income and that income I had was dependent on the good will of the churches I ministered to. She said that wasn’t the question, whether I felt I had enough money, the question was would I want to marry her, did I want to marry her?

I sat there on the edge of the bed and pondered that question. The question for me was could I handle the emotional pain and the sense of loss that would definitely come if I did marry her? It was during that conversation that I truly realized she was going to die. I said as much to Ellie’s mother.

She sat there in the chair and gazed at me for a long time. Finally she spoke. “My husband wants her to be as happy as possible ‘til the end, ‘til the very end.” She said it while blinking back tears. “So I am giving you this!” and with that she took off her engagement ring leaving only her wedding band on her finger. “You go to Colorado and New Mexico and you forward your mail to here, and you get back here as soon as you can! I watch how you look at my daughter! You look at her like her father looks at me!” With that, she got up and quickly left the room.

I left for the bus station with Ellie’s father and brother both in the truck. We got out at the station and Ellie’s brother grabbed me and hugged me. “You get back here, brother! Sis needs you.”

Ellie’s father came around the front of the truck as I gathered my luggage. “I just want to tell you, I would have understood if you did, so I am very glad you didn’t because that would have hurt me! You know what I am talking about.”

I went ‘home’ to Colorado and told the postmaster in the little village where I had headquartered near Lee that I was going to be on an extended evangelistic tour in the Bible belt. I ordered my mail to be forwarded and turned the key to the little adobe house I rented back to the landlord. I sold my old International Scout, my Dodge Van and anything that I did not need to take with me. I reduced all my possessions to what I could carry and ship on Greyhound. And with that, I rode with my landlord into Trinidad and boarded a Greyhound bus that would take me back to Missouri. I visited friends I had made along the way and after a few stops I was back at that bus station waiting for Ellie’s family to pick me up.

Ellie’s brother showed up this time. He was so obviously glad to see me. That was an experience that I was beginning to like! Being greeted when I got off buses certainly felt wonderful! He stopped at a little diner and offered to buy lunch. While we sat and ate, he explained that his folks were waiting to see what I would do. They knew I could just run away from the situation and pawn that ring which was rather valuable, and they had agreed if I did, they would not retaliate or track me down. But they did not think I was going to do that.

Ellie’s brother explained that they were so sure I was going to return that they had created an apartment out of two rooms of the house. I was startled. He saw that. And then he got serious and told me, that Ellie was still well enough that no one would suspect she was sick, but she was going to be worse and probably sooner than later. He explained that things were done efficiently in his family. On the drive home he continued to mention that things were done efficiently in his family as if he was trying to prepare me. We arrived on the farm and he drove around the house to the back door. We got out and as I turned toward the house Ellie appeared in the doorway. I felt in my pocket for the ring her mother gave me and with all the bravery I could muster with heart pounding a hundred miles an hour, I climbed up the steps into the screen porch I knelt and asked her to marry me.

A few days later, there was a little wedding in that house with the pastor from that church I had preached in doing the honors. A friend of the family and his wife were witnesses. Ellie’s cousin stood as her maid of honor and her brother who was now going to be my brother in law stood as best man. She wore the same wedding dress as her mother had worn at her wedding and Ellie looked incredibly beautiful. Our honeymoon was actually a revival crusade and honeymoon down into Louisiana. The revival was in a church made up entirely of black people. The pastor was a very close friend I had met while traveling with Lee and his church almost smothered Ellie and I with attention and stuffed us with the best southern style cooking I have ever tasted! We were able to sight-see and also fellowship with people who did not have a mean bone in their bodies! For a week, we had bliss and did not have to think about a disease silently lurking in Ellie’s body that would eventually claim her life.

We went home to the farm and lived together in that two-room apartment in the back of that farmhouse surrounded by family that clearly loved us both and loved each other. We had several months of married life before the disease would start to be more obvious and begin to show it was there to stay. After awhile the illness caught up to Ellie and as a result, to me as well. I knew very little about AIDS. (I lived with a fear for quite a few years that I would get that terrible disease or had picked it up while being with Ellie.) We used the normal precautions, but it was much later that I learned that the AIDS virus was not prevented from transmitting by ordinary latex, whether condoms or surgical gloves. We had both given up our virginity when we were on the honeymoon, but it was a rare event if we were able to repeat that part of marriage after her illness started to go into full blown AIDS. During the early months of my life with this family, we were like any normal young married couple. I also enjoyed the increasing warmth and companionship of a loving family.

As Ellie’s condition worsened she requested that she not be put in a hospital or a rest home. Those were two of the choices for people who were terminally ill in that area. So the bedroom began to look more and more like a hospital room as Ellie continued to decline. She kept telling me nearly every day that she did not want to die in a rest home for the elderly, she wanted to be with her family and with me.

I took a trip one day to the Missouri University where Ellie had been raped. Ellie’s father loaned me his pickup and I took with me a letter from Ellie to that football player telling him she forgave him and that she was dying and that he had been her only partner. He was now aware he was HIV positive. I left him crying on the bleacher seats on the sideline of a football field and drove back to the farm.

I learned how to insert a catheter, how to set an IV, how to feed an invalid, how to make sure that she wouldn’t choke on food, and I learned about bedpans and pads and all the other issues that occur when a woman is no longer able to get out of bed. I learned a new definition of love that had not been in my dictionary before I met this family. I learned that I could not walk away from this woman who eventually became skin and bones and was so weak she could not sit up. But every time I would wash her off and gently clean her up after those bodily functions had soiled the pads and the bed sheet, I still saw that amazingly beautiful girl that had climbed out of a swimming hole one hot summer day and had dressed while I couldn’t take my eyes off her. We finally got to the day when she could hardly whisper anymore she was so weak. Her family gathered around as I and her mother held her in a sitting position while she said good bye. The Iron Lady stood and reached her hand past my shoulder to cradle the back of Ellie’s head and told her, “Go home, child. Your Heavenly Father is waiting for you.” The Iron Lady often used a certain religious terminology that I found a little out of place at times, but that time it did not bring my usual reaction!

Ellie turned her head painfully back and forth as she looked at each of us, and then she asked us all one by one if she could let go. We each in turn gave her permission to go ahead and go ‘home’. I was so fearful of this moment, so grieved and at the same time relieved that she would not suffer anymore that I could only nod when she turned to me. She took a very long deep breath and suddenly she lit up and seemed to glow, she was so happy. She exclaimed in somewhat of her old voice, “Oh Daddy! It is not just a Bible story! He’s real!” and she slumped into our arms and was gone.

People say I was used by Ellie’s family to give her happiness while she died with no regard to my needs or feelings. But I don’t think so. I had never had a gentlewoman put her most prized ring in my hand and send me across several states with the trust that I would return! I think God used all of us to comfort each other and to heal me of some very terrible childhood memories that had haunted my every step up until that time. To be sure! The memories still come back, but as Ellie’s father had said, they no longer hurt as much. For that, I am forever grateful to him and to God for bringing us together! In a way, I was Ellie’s caregiver and her family was my caregiver. She was carried into heaven during that time, and I was carried out of old terrible memories.

My short-lived brother in law was in Kuwait during Desert Storm and he returned to waste away until death took him too. Burning oil fields set afire by Sadam’s retreating troops got many of our boys in uniform sick.

Ellie’s parents passed away and I probably should have claimed Ellie’s share of the inheritance, but there were uncles of Ellie’s that were very good men, and I handed my house keys and the vehicle keys to them, gave them each a hug and walked away. I closed the door on that part of my life when the Iron Lady became an empty clay shell and she too found herself in a real place which was not just a Bible story for her grandchildren. She is also resting in perfect Peace. I miss my brother in law almost as much as I missed Ellie.

I married a woman in New Mexico a few years later, and realized that Ellie’s memory did not threaten the marriage. I was very afraid it would at first! Rather, the memory helped me start working on being a better husband. That is a task that I still have not finished and goes on to this day. That wife went through a gang rape in the northern Chama valley where we were building a church mission. She also passed away and I am now married to a woman (Patti) that somehow is been able to make my heart do flip flops and pitter patters no matter how terrible she thinks she looks! She has had more than her share of illnesses. Being 38 years in a wheelchair takes its toll. There is one similarity between Ellie and Patti that I really like! Both of them have a heart that shines through and makes them forever beautiful. Patti never seems to understand that, so she is always faithful to apply her makeup even if she is in the hospital and she tells me she wants to be beautiful for me. I just can’t ever understand women! You know? I don’t know what words to use to tell her that she is so beautiful she moves my heart.

Ellie’s family taught me faithfulness and loyalty like my mother did. Because they lived it out with me, they affirmed all the wisdom my mother shared with me. I was able to deal with some terrible childhood memories and it was a safe haven to do so. The hole in my heart that was there when Ellie died was filled later when I remarried in New Mexico. I discovered that caregiving was as natural for me as any other occupation that I could ever indulge in. I found I was fulfilled when I was giving to people in such a way that they were truly cared for. I also found that no matter how terrible the old memories were, that they could no longer erase that sense of well-being and confidence I had by the work I did to give real care to those who needed it. That does wonders for self-esteem. Even if we do burn ourselves out in the doing of it!

Gertan / Shutterstock.com

Written by David Waterman
I am a spousal caregiver. I have had a lot of serious accidents in dangerous construction jobs. My recovery has not always been smooth but I did learn how my wife feels when she is bed bound for long periods. With similar experiences in our past I have a better understanding of what she needs to be comfortable. I also spent years involved in Christian ministry and the principles of Christianity apply so well to this life I lead now and give much needed stability when all other things are so often in the air.

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